Alex Kummant, National Stationmaster

Editor’s note: A shorter version of this interview will run in the Aug. 13 print edition of The Observer.

 

LOCATION: Explain why Amtrak wants New Jersey Transit’s planned ARC (Access to the Region’s Core) tunnel under the Hudson River to connect with the Penn Station tracks.

Mr. Kummant: Basically, look, this goes back to a process we’re leading, which is a process for the whole Northeast corridor. And, at the end of the day, we’re in a completely different world, where capacity matters a great deal. You’re looking at 2030 projections where commuter volume and Amtrak volume in total is almost doubling. So, if there aren’t capacity solutions in Penn Station, that’s a big deal.

And the other thing I would say is that, fundamentally, we’re in a very different world than we were even three years ago. On all these projects, frankly, there was capacity everywhere–a lot of these things were done on handshake deals; a lot of things could kind of be done locally because you knew, ‘Oh, you can kind of muddle through, there’s enough capacity.’ Today, suddenly everything’s so constrained and demand’s so high that you can have Penn Station issues that ripple back into trains initiating in Pennsylvania.

So, the entire planning world has gotten dramatically more complicated. So, I would just say, ‘Capacity, capacity, capacity.’

 

So the idea’s to alleviate that?

Yes. It’s basically north-south intercity transportation capacity. If you broaden it out and if you look at the congestion at the airports in New York, one of the answers is more intercity passenger rail. If you look at where we are in market share–if you combine air and rail–we’re at 60-plus percent share between New York and D.C., for example.

So, if you take the Moynihan project [the redevelopment of Penn Station], our folks have always talked in terms of … the sort of three C’s. There’s the little C in terms of capacity, which is vertical capacity–just getting more people to flow through the station, more accessibility. There’s the middle C, which is can you just manage trains a little bit better with today’s aggregate north-south capacity, a little more kind of within the station itself. And then there’s the big C, which is major north-south capacity.

So that’s really where we’re coming from.

 

Have you heard anything lately from New Jersey Transit about ARC?

We talk all the time. Look, we’re very supportive of ARC. Clearly, it’s a critical project for New Jersey. All we have said is that north-south capacity matters. We’re not enemies; we’re not in a fight.

 

But their response would be how do you pay for that connection from the tunnel to Penn?

I don’t know chapter and verse of the arcane of how the [Federal Transit Administration] funds. And, again, I would remind folks that we’re not a federal agency; we’re not a regulatory agency; we’re not a funding agency. But, basically, you can use the same avenues. We were just suggesting that if you go down the path of spending large amounts of federal dollars on this project, it might make sense to look at total north-south capacity.

 

So, if there’s not a connection? I have a letter from you to the ARC project manager at New Jersey Transit referencing ‘a fifth trans-Hudson tunnel.’

We’re just saying that all the connectivity matters. And if there’s no connection, we just have to all be clear-eyed about it. At some point, if you’re looking at an intelligent plan for the entire Northeast corridor, the nexus of New York City is the single most important capacity constraint on the whole system. So, at some point, there’s going to have to be some sort of connection or another tunnel. That’s just a truism; that’s just reality.

 

Do you have a timetable on that?

No. That’s just a statement, which is if there’s no capacity that comes to the north-south flow through New York City, all we’re saying is at some point there’s going to have to be a solution in order to meet all of the planning projections of all the transportation entities north and south of New York.

 

In a letter to The New York Times in November 2007, you wrote that, ‘All our project partners agree that our primary purpose is to create a world-class station’–this is about Moynihan Station–‘that vastly improves the experience of passengers as they enter and leave New York City.’ Would Amtrak be happy with the scaled-back Moynihan, where Madison Square Garden doesn’t move?

Look, again, I don’t think I’m here to take positions on one plan or another. And I’ll be perfectly frank: I know that the plans are always in a state of flux. We are very supportive of anything that enhances the passenger experience; and New York City and Penn Station customers can benefit from a great station.

It only becomes more difficult to make the business case if there’s no capacity [improvement] associated with that. … We’re not the developers. I would just say you can’t necessarily be against a better station, and that’s not the point. The point is, I think, the economics get more difficult. But, again, we’re not the developers.

 

Would Amtrak consider moving to the Farley Post Office from Penn, especially if that’s going to be the entrance to the train station?

Well, generally, as we’ve looked at it that case gets very difficult to make without additional capacity. If there really were additional capacity, if there were some sort of fairly dramatic improvement in capacity, I think that would be more likely. But I think the business case gets difficult to make.

 

You’ve mentioned capacity. I just want to clarify what you mean by that.

More slots. It’s just more trains, north-south.

 

How do you do that, though–without extra tunnels, without extra platforms, sharing the rail with freight?

You don’t. The point is we spent a long time working with NJT on the original concept, which was the tunnel into Penn. That was always one of the pieces of the conversation; so it was about actual, physical additional capacity.

There’s also another concept, which is Block 780, which is currently the underground space south of Penn Station. You need actual tracks and platforms–that would be an area where you could put additional actual capacity in terms of station track and platform.

 

Is Amtrak in talks right now with the Empire State Development Corporation, Related Companies, Vornado Realty Trust–the developers of Moynihan Station?

We’re always in a constant process with them. We’re good friends; we have existing project teams that are always in touch.

 

You haven’t heard anything very recently?

I personally have not. I don’t mean to dodge that. All I know is that the working teams are always in the middle of various scenarios.

 

I only ask because Governor Paterson said something on the radio yesterday [Aug. 5] about wanting new plans for Moynihan.

I think I saw that press report as well, and so I don’t know if there’s another set of conversations that are being started at this moment. I can’t answer that.

 

We touched on this earlier, but the ridership for Amtrak has been increasing, nationwide and in the Northeast. A lot of Northeast trains are literally sold out during peak hours. How does Amtrak expect to keep up with the demand?

Well, that is the question, is it not? We have said repeatedly and we’ve said in front of Congress that our most desperate need right now is to really begin a whole cycle of equipment procurement.

By the way, parenthetically, I might point out an interesting factoid: People need to remember that one in five of our riders are in California; and, in fact, the Pacific Surfliner, the line between San Luis Obispo and San Diego, actual exceeded the Acela in ridership last month.

So, look, we’ve had a number of great discussions on the Hill. I think there are a lot of people that are very supportive and are trying to help us with that. There’s a number of things we need to look at: coalitions with states; the [congressional] reauthorization has a provision for capital matching funds which can be applied toward equipment–we encourage the states to look in that direction; we would certainly welcome more capital in order to do that. We’re also, frankly, in the middle of working on a very detailed plan to say, ‘Here’s very specifically what we need.’

The Northeast corridor itself, the equipment needs are big enough that that may in the end have to be a stand-alone appropriation.

 

Are there any plans to privatize the Northeast corridor?

No.

 

You mentioned Acela earlier. As far as the shorter, two-hour train between D.C. and New York, is that going to happen?

Not with the current structure and the current funding. And not with eight different commuter agencies and 750,000 commuters on the Northeast corridor and 50 freight trains and a Civil War-era set of Baltimore tunnels.

 

Why is it brought up then?

I’m not bringing it up.

 

I know. Not you. Mayor Bloomberg spoke about it.

I understand why people say this, but if you get into the actual railroad operation issues–let me give you this: You’re talking about billions of dollars to do that.

At the end of the day, we have over 60 percent of the air-rail market share as it is; I would argue if you have an incremental $5 billion, we should probably rebuild every station we have and focus on connectivity with great parking, great bus connections and everything else–you would really drive ridership.

I’m not suggesting these are hugely competing visions. If somebody wants to do the heavy political lifting of $30 billion to do [the two-hour train], hey, that’s great. I just think what I don’t want to do is suck the wind out of capital funding for everything else around Amtrak. There’s an awful lot we can do for single-digit billions, and that’s one of the things we keep pointing out. You can do an awful lot at 100 to 110 miles per hour. And, I think, given the overall funding, the state of the federal budget, the state of the states’ budgets, I think it’s far more realistic and pragmatic to pursue efforts in single-digit billions and single-digit years.